The Ring/Ringu


The Ring is not a remake of Ringu. It is an Americanization: a mirror that reflects the values inherent to American/Hollywood film production. The fact that The Ring parallels Ringu very closely (albeit in a superficial sense), but shoots wide of the mark, makes it a rare and instructive example of just what defines an American movie – and what has happened to American horror films in particular.

In general, horror translates well to other nations. Where specific cultural anxieties differ1, their expressions (in the form of angry spirits, etc.) are universal. Few watch a horror film as a sociologist – the genre is basically a vehicle for visceral thrills that, hopefully, carry a dash of insight. Unfortunately, even this pleasure has been sabotaged – by the mediocrities who emulate their betters without understanding them – and that has resulted in a lot of gore and stupidity. You the viewer are to blame. Because of brand marketing, horror-less titles are eaten up.

The Ring is both a real horror movie and at least somewhat effective. And it, too, succumbs to the mediocrities of the modern American horror film: a belief in surprise over tension, an ignorance of the history of the genre, and an overdependence on special effects and disgust. That it has these flaws within a proven, effective package, and is still pretty effective in its own right, makes it stand out all the more.

Ringu And The Ring: What Or Why

Like Candyman, The Ring is an exegesis of an urban legend. In both Ringu and The Ring, a reporter looks into a string of mysterious deaths that (we think) lead back to the viewing of a frightening videotape and the receiving of a terrifying phone call. Soon thereafter, the reporter gets the deadly call and has to solve the mystery of the tape before her number is up. Her ex-husband gets into the act, they uncover various things, and it all seems to end well.

Until they find out that the monstrosity of the tape’s creator (Samara in The Ring, Sadako in Ringu) goes deeper than imagined, and that the evil spirit’s goal is propagation, not vindication. Within this basic outline, Ringu is gripping and terrifying. The Ring, on the other hand, is just an above-average horror flick – and today’s average is pretty low.

The Kid

In both films, the reporter and the ex-husband have a kid with psychic abilities. The difference is that Ringu came out before The Sixth Sense, The Ring well after. Emblematic of a common historical blankness in American horror cinema, The Ring makes the kid a ‘Cole Seer’ – a preternaturally wise guy, simply because he “sees dead people.” Not only is this a critical misreading of Ringu and The Sixth Sense, it is stupid.

In Ringu, the little kid’s charm is his matter-of-factness. One of the klunkier moments is when we find out that father and son are psychic, and thus more susceptible to Sadako. Since it has no impact on the plot, this isn’t developed with any real depth or interest. Since non-psychics are as vulnerable to Sadako as these Espers are, one wonders what the point is. However, the acting is handled in such a way that it is never annoying. And the kid acts like one.

In The Ring, the kid never seems child-like. He calls mom by her first name, has adult conversations with dad, and is the only one able to suss the real nature of Samara’s wrath. It might have worked. But David Dorfman (who will be in the blasted remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, probably as
a creepy kid) cannot hack it. In The Sixth Sense, Haley Joel Osment convinced us he was a kid in a hellish situation. Dorfman is overly cool, and though it adds to his oddity level, he kills the reality of his character. It could be that M. Night Shyamalan has a better touch with actors. If The Ring‘s director, Gore Verbinski, is good at something, I don’t know what it is.

The Tape

In terms of narrative and effect, the videotape is central to each film, and it shows the differences between them. Inscrutable and short, Ringu‘s tape is grainy and hard to make out. It is unsettling, but only indirectly. None of it would be creepy on its own (necessarily), but the presentation does have an effect.

Ironically, The Ring has a proper critique of the tape: “Very film student,” says Noah, the ex-husband. And he’s right. It could have been made by a devotee of Mark Romanek’s NIN videos. A millipede, a ladder, a spinning chair… To be frank, it is just stupid. The major problem is that it seeks to disgust – the shot of a nail going through a finger is gross, but only typically so.

In Ringu, the origin of the tape is clear. A psychic imprint of Sadako’s anger at her murder, the tape is referred to as “Sadako’s rage.” But The Ring is less lucid and has none of Ringu‘s psychic weight. If Ringu‘s tape is a view of the subconscious, The Ring‘s is a scrawl from a goth kid’s notebook.

In The Ring, there’s also a constant parallel between real life and the tape. Rachel sees its spirals everywhere, and the ladder in the tape looks a lot like the one just outside Noah’s loft. This makes the tape a cheap horror movie trick – not a message from Samara.

Images, Direction

Verbinski comes from advertising. He invented the Budweiser frogs. His film Mouse Hunt has some hilarious moments (especially those with Christopher Walken), but it depends too much on special effects. Unlike Phantoms or Batman And Robin, The Ring is directed competently. BUT…it has no weight. Verbinski has no personal reason to make the film, and it shows in every single shot.

One problem is the unreality of the images. Everything looks fake. The walls of the cabin where the videotape is found look weathered and vine-strangled in a calculated way. It’s too produced. Ringu is cheaper, and looks it. Most of the action takes place on closed sets, and there are no visible computer effects – the gloss factor is low. And since this is a horror movie, that’s in its favor.

Take the well scene. From a narrative standpoint, The Ring is a little cracked. Do the filmmakers know why the characters in Ringu are trying to drain the well to find Sadako? In The Ring, nobody thinks of going down the well to find Samara. The stupidity of the sequence is heightened when a television2 pushes Rachel in. This undermines the logic of Samara’s power (since when is she able to physically manipulate stuff? If she can, why doesn’t she drag her bony rear out?), and it looks like one of those stupid Rube Goldberg murder traps in Final Destination. Not only does it look fake, it is stupid. Knocked into a well at an angle, one would not fall straight down, one would get hit on the sides. If anything, Rachel would have brained that pretty blonde head of hers.

In Ringu, the draining of the well is more realistic, and, as a result, more suspenseful. Without the silly bombast and symbolism that dogs The Ring, we now get an idea of what the characters are doing and why. As they work against an implacable deadline, there is the sense of time passing. The Ring follows a false sense of drama, the sort that is taught in screenwriting class3: the idea that ‘stakes’ have to be raised at all ti
mes, and that an audience needs the suspense or danger of a ‘just-in-time’ variety.

Just as demonstrative is the discovery of the corpse. Ringu knows it is a horror movie. When Sadako’s corpse is found , we see her hair. Reiko peels it and we see the girl’s skull. Though blood is nil, the scene is disquieting. Deciding that more money = more fright, The Ring has Rachel find a perfectly preserved corpse that rots in her hands, CGI-style. It defies story logic. Till now, we have had no reason to believe that Rachel is psychic. The only weird thing about her is that she saw the videotape. So we have to assume that the corpse only started to rot once it came to the surface. This isn’t realistic, and since she can travel psychically, nothing about Samara would suggest that she is allied to her physical form. The sequence’s illogic undermines the film.

Effect Without Context

Every problem with The Ring stems from a disunity of context and effect: Each shot goes for a horrific effect, but there’s no sensitivity to the greater good of the film. That’s why, in Samara’s video, there are gross-outs and spinning chairs – they don’t have any real psychological impact, but they do look creepy.

Unsurprisingly, the worst scene is created specifically for the new film. Samara kills horses.4 When Rachel approaches a horse in a pen, it spooks and runs off. The reason for this event is clear: to have the horse create a scary scene. The owner of the horse, a young girl, is on hand. Why is she there? So we can feel disturbed by her watching her horse get killed. The scene crosses the line between exploitative and manipulative (which always sucks. I’m looking at you, Spielberg).

What Went Right

Ringu performs well the business of horror movies: it is scary, and it has a premise and execution that overcome some very real problems with the script. Generally, The Ring is a bland Hollywood exercise that works on occasion, and when it does it is because of time-tested formulae.

Much as I dislike it, The Ring has a core that keeps it from being a failure, and it is this core that elevates Ringu to near-classic status: the belief in evil. Central to the horror movie, it was lost largely in the 80s and 90s. Jason Voorhees isn’t evil – he’s a force of nature, without intelligence or deliberation. Freddy Krueger is evil, but only in the first and final Nightmare movies. In the rest, he is a clown. You root for him because he’s the more likable and entertaining character. His attraction is not that of true evil. Freddy is fun.

Both human and alien, evil is the inscrutable within the knowable – a parasite. Sadako and Samara are psychic parasites, using others to express their rage and desire to hurt. While The Ring does some typical psychologizing, Ringu implies that Sadako’s father was a goblin from the sea5. Either way, both movies end with the knowledge that they killed from a desire to do evil – not because they were upset.

Laziness is the only reason I can see for The Ring‘s omnipresent evil – it was easier not to change something than to come up with something else. I say this because evil requires a philosophy, and The Ring doesn’t have one. All it has is a lot of money and technical competence – enough to make it a good movie, but not a great one.

1Here, the assumption is that horror films are manifestations of cultural anxiety. But it eliminates the role of the author, who is singularly important in the expression of the horror form. Thematically distinct because of who made them, The Exorcist a
nd Dawn Of The Dead are from the same culture. Remember (and this may sound pedantic): movies are more often the product of individual imagination than they are of culture.

2If you make horror films, embarrassment is the worst trait to display. When John Frankenheimer directed The Island Of Dr. Moreau (the best and most readable H.G. Wells book), he said he just wanted to make a commercial film and was sorry for the dreck he released. Well, it showed up there, and it shows up here: shots of drab-looking people watching TV, as if the real horror is domination by mass media. If Verbinski wanted to make that kind of movie, he should have – not a ghost story about revenge. All the TV symbolism is flat. It’s as if he wanted to put some ‘statement’ over the trappings of the genre. Is he embarrassed?

3I’ve taken them, I know.

4They explain why, so it’s not entirely without sense.

5As a lifelong Lovecraftian, this is one of my favorite moments in the film. Take it from me: if you can put water monsters in your movie, do it. They’re always scary.

About Kent Conrad

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